Letter From Toronto: Films on Striving to Be Black in America

Toronto Film Festival 2019: Beyond Black Lives Matter, “Waves” and “American Son” depict a netherworld where the upper middle class black experience teeters on the edge of tragedy


Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

Two films in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival explore the painful pressures placed on upwardly mobile African American families seeking to get ahead in society. The families may push their kids hard to overachieve, these films say, but they must balance that against the intolerable pressures those efforts may place on them, particularly their sons. In “Waves,” written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, handsome high school senior Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is close to the gold ring — he trains hard as a competitive wrestler, does his homework, drives a cool car and has a cool girlfriend. His overachieving dad (Sterling K Brown) pushes Tyler still harder — maybe too hard. But, his dad tells him, it’s for his own good. Life won’t give Tyler anything, he explains in a tough-love exchange. Learn this lesson early, dad says: A young African American man has to perform better than his non-black peers to get ahead. But the father is so busy ensuring his son’s future that he doesn’t notice that Tyler is cracking under the pressure. He’s training too hard and using drugs to cover up a sports injury; he’s also unable to cope with an unexpected turn with his girlfriend. A tragedy ensues that catapults the family out of the upper middle class struggle and into the nightmare that engulfs too many black men with fewer advantages in America. It suggests that the hard-won gains of this family can disappear in an instant. The film, a beautifully told fable, takes the story forward with the story of Tyler’s younger sister in a more hopeful thread. But Tyler’s life will never be the same. What’s notable about Kerry Washington’s character in “American Son,” based on the acclaimed play by Christopher Demos-Brown and adapted by Kenny Leon, is that she’s a PhD who has raised her son Jamal to speak grammatical English rather than street slang, raised him to be respectful and strive to achieve great things — which he is fully expected to do at West Point, where he has been accepted for the upcoming school year.
American Son Kerry Washington
American Son Kerry Washington / Netflix
And still she finds herself pacing frantically in a police station in the dark of night, waiting for some news of 19-year-old Jamal, who was stopped by the police but whose fate is still unknown. Jamal, as it turns out, has lately rebelled against all the expectations placed on him in his prep school upbringing. He’s started to wear dreadlocks, baggy pants and — a fatal plot point — has placed a “Shoot Cops” bumper sticker on the family Lexus. A youthful indiscretion, to be sure. But what are the appropriate expectations for a family like this one, an educated, upwardly mobile family of mixed race? “American Son” tells us that it is different for African American men, no matter how carefully nurtured. Every parent worries about getting their children over the hump of teenage years, when rebellion and peer pressures kick in. Every loving parent prays that an adolescent indiscretion or illegality or flat-out stupidity doesn’t ruin a child’s life. But Jamal’s fate, it turns out, balances on a knife’s edge. Beyond the world of Black Lives Matter, these films depict a netherworld where the upper middle class black experience teeters on the edge of tragedy because of the state of race relations in this country. In “American Son,” this dilemma explodes in a searing exchange between Kendra (Washington) and a by-the-book African American police lieutenant (Eugene Lee), who warns her that she has failed in teaching her son to act as if he is free in America. As if he has the right to expect the full rights and privileges of any citizen. This Cassandra call extends beyond the film because the world of Black Lives Matter is at the festival too, notably in Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” which TheWrap’s Steve Pond called a “potent drama about racism and justice” that premiered on Friday night. In that film, Michael B. Jordan plays an idealistic, Harvard-educated lawyer bent on freeing a man (Jamie Foxx) who was sent to Alabama’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit. That harsh reality has been a subject of narrative drama for many years, only more so with the advent of social media dramatizing real-life injustices. These other films remind us that there are ever more complexities to being an African American man today.